In a wild MotoGP rider market, Ducati has been the scene of some of the biggest – and most contentious – upheaval.
It’s ended up with a heavily revamped squad, and with its current lead rider heading for unemployment despite being Marc Marquez’s main title rival in recent years.
In an exclusive interview with The Race, Ducati MotoGP chief Paolo Ciabatti explains why he was so certain it was “time for a change”, and sees the reshuffle as an opportunity to inject some new energy into the team after a period of results stagnation.
Though Andrea Dovizioso was three times runner-up in the riders’ championship across 2017-19, he never really had the consistent pace to challenge dominant champion Marquez for the crown.
That in part is why Ducati was in no rush to re-sign the 34-year-old for next year – a situation that ultimately resolved itself with Dovizioso telling his team that he didn’t want to be a part of its project and walking away, leaving himself as of now still unemployed.
But, with satellite riders Jack Miller and Pecco Bagnaia stepping up from Pramac Racing next year to take over the factory machines from Dovizioso and the Tech3 KTM-bound Danilo Petrucci, Ciabatti sees the change as a positive one – and perhaps even a necessary step.
“Maybe we will fail and do even worse, but we have to take the risk” :: Paolo Ciabatti
Earlier in the season Ducati looked to be on the back foot in the rider market as it failed to secure any established big names from rival teams.
Now it’s effectively following the model that’s created this year’s title fight between Suzuki’s Joan Mir and Yamaha man Fabio Quartararo and putting its faith in new talent.
“It’s always difficult to say goodbye to riders who have been with you for a long time, and Andrea has been with us for eight years and Danilo since his Pramac days in 2016,” Ciabatti tells The Race.
“But on the other side, we have an exciting rider line-up; young, motivated riders.
“It’s the first time that both riders from Pramac have moved up and it shows the work we are doing with them is valuable.
“We want to win the title, and after trying for so long it’s time to bring in new energies, new strategies.
“Maybe we will fail and do even worse, but we have to take the risk.
“When Suzuki took Joan Mir he had a great talent but he wasn’t someone who had been winning continuously in Moto2. Fabio even more so, because of his up and down career.
“From this point of view I am very satisfied with the riders we have for next year, because it’s going to be great motivation to have some riders we know like Jack and Pecco, but to also have some great talent.
“It’s going to be a very exciting year with so much young energy in the project.”
The young blood strategy will extend beyond just the factory team, too, with Miller’s Pramac replacement Johann Zarco the sole outlier in a stable set to be composed of young talent. Rookie Jorge Martin is already confirmed as Zarco’s team-mate, with fellow Moto2 graduates Enea Bastianini and Luca Marini in the mix for Zarco’s current team Esponsorama (formerly Avintia) and Tito Rabat likely to be ousted as a result.
The precise line-up is still to be completely finalised as Ducati, Valentino Rossi – whose VR46 organisation could make an early MotoGP arrival as part of this process – and the Esponsorama Racing team negotiate together to secure the final spot, but Ciabatti is nonetheless content that Ducati is doing the right thing with its wider line-up too.
“Pramac will have a good mix of experience and young talent with Zarco and Martin, and let’s see if we can finalise the deal for Esponsorama and make the Bastianini and Marini thing happen,” says Ciabatti, pictured above with Esponsorama boss Ruben Xaus.
“I’m saying that with full respect for Rabat, but if you have two of the most promising riders in Moto2 moving to MotoGP it is good for everything.
“The average age of our rider line-up will be very young. Of course Johann is 30, but the next one is Jack at 26.
“When I look at these younger guys, I think they have the talent as well as the right approach to challenge Marc, and I think it was the right time for a change in strategy.”
That’s potentially an important factor for the team as it faces a difficult 2021 in terms of sponsorship.
With Ducati backed by a brand that relies solely on using the paddock to entertain guests as a way to get a return on its sponsorship thanks to laws preventing the Marlboro name from appearing on the bikes, Ciabatti admits that there could soon be an impact on resources amid the COVID situation.
“Most of the people here stay away from home for three weeks without the ability to do anything fun in between. This is all adding stress” :: Paolo Ciabatti
“Many of the top teams’ sponsors had the VIP Village as one of the main benefits,” he explains.
“We’ve been going through this season having renegotiated our contracts for the future with a few options, knowing that at least in the first part of the year it might not be possible to have guests in the paddock.
“Maybe if it’s not possible in the first races it will be at one point, either because the virus is going down or because a vaccine is available.
“We’re ready and we’ve tried to include a couple of scenarios.
“We’re not particularly worried, but we are worried about 2021 in general. We talked about the second wave and hoped that it wouldn’t come, but now it has and it seems it’s worse.
“We know better how to treat it and countries are better-prepared, but in terms of the aggressiveness of the virus it seems worse than ever.”
The veteran Italian team boss also concedes that 2020 has been the worst year of his motorsport career, thanks in large part to the extra stress of going racing during a global pandemic.
Though MotoGP has been able to complete 11 rounds to date despite severe restrictions on movement and interaction, Ciabatti admits that the burden of obeying those rules has been a unique factor this year that has impacted everyone in his team.
“2020 has been difficult for all of us, because of all the things that have happened,” he says.
“We’re coping with an unprecedented situation. It started with a few months where we didn’t even know if there was going to be a championship.
“One double race and then four triples… I have the privilege to fly back every Sunday with the riders, but most of the people here stay away from home for three weeks without the ability to do anything fun in between.
“This is all adding stress, and there isn’t the fun part of our work where you go to have a beer and to eat some salami on a Friday evening in front of the Pramac hospitality.
“Even when you go home, you can’t relax, because of the situation there.
“Even wearing a mask, having to put on the face screen in the garage, washing your hands a thousand times a day and always having to be careful means that you can never relax.”